The novel opens in the garrison town of Milborough. Althea Wardlaw is waiting for her army husband to return with the doctor to treat her sick child, John. She grows impatient, fearing he will die. Captain Wardlaw, meanwhile, is lounging in the smoking room, disinterested in the welfare of his child. Another soldier takes pity on her and sends for the doctor. Dr Everest diagnoses inflammation of the lungs, and the prognosis is not hopeful. Althea declares that she will kill herself if the child dies, and the doctor admonishes her for her impiety, declaring that she must accept God’s will. A few days later, the worst is over and the child is convalescent. Captain Wardlaw remains in his own quarters, unmoved by what has taken place.
Six years later, they are stationed in Ballydroogan, Ireland. We learn in more detail that Captain Wardlaw is a bad husband – he is “selfish, self-indulgent, and indifferent”. He thinks of other women and neglects his familial responsibilities, generally behaving like a bachelor. His main interests are billiards, smoking, and drinking, and he often returns home drunk. He is violent towards his wife and child, and takes sadistic advantage of their close bond, beating his son in order to cause misery to his wife. He repeatedly threatens his wife with separation, and fear causes Althea to tolerate drunkenness, abuse and infidelity.
Ever a weakly child, young John succumbs to scarlet fever and Althea again fears she will lose him. Captain Wardlaw does his best to thwart John’s recovery, denying him the necessary warmth and comfort. Sister Catherine, a friend of Althea, helps with caring for John. Althea finds spiritual and emotional strength in her ministrations, but worries whether the Captain will object to her presence. However, the reader is told that he “had been philandering away the whole afternoon by the side of his latest flame, Mrs Leofric Temple.”
Mrs Temple is a widow with flaxen curls, blue eyes, a rosebud mouth, and limited intelligence. She has a son, Leofric, who is a year younger than John and shares her looks. The Captain lavishes treats on her and young Leofric, whilst neglecting his own family. Althea is aware of what he is up to but keeps her counsel, fearing further violence.
John slowly recovers from his illness, but Althea’s weakened state means that she catches fever, dying a fortnight later. The Captain is unconcerned by his wife’s death, and within a year he has replaced her with Mrs Temple.